1.1 Teachers of Philosophy

Ph.D. means literary “teacher of philosophy”, from Latin Philosophiae Doctor, abbreviated  to Ph.D, sometimes, as at Oxford, also D.Phil.

With this definition in mind, and a practical approach, I started a careful examination of everyone I knew to be a teacher of philosophy. In the following days, I observed lecturers, researchers and some professors strolling around, going to seminars, gathering for meetings, having a coffee break and casually chatting in the corridors. It didn’t take me long to perceive a certain discrepancy between the observation and the image I had in mind of teachers of philosophy. Such image was somehow impressed upon me by the famous painting ‘The School of Athens’ by Raphael, which depicts a hall in which Plato and Aristotle are surrounded by other famous ancient philosophers.

The Particular of the School of Athens by Raphael. The detail is from a picture of the whole painting available on wikipedia.

The inconsistency grows even more when scrutinising the teachers-to-be, or Ph.D. students, who on average—although there are exceptions—cannot be seen during morning hours, walk around with music players, wear trainers and sloppy T-shirts, and have a cheerful and carefree, only occasionally downcast, appearance. One of course must take into consideration that music players and trainers did not exist in the ancient Greece, and fashion had not produced fancy T-shirts yet. However, even making allowances for all the aspects that modernity has introduced, it seems still clear that the current meaning of Ph.D. does not match the literal meaning of teacher of philosophy.

My first attempt to find out what Ph.D. is then appears to have gone amiss. Yet, the fact that the term Ph.D. does not match well the current, practical meaning is a possible source of confusion itself. After such investigation, one feels that universities ought to provide some further definition of Ph.D., there must be some general definition that describes the real meaning, or core, that makes a degree be called Ph.D. And that is what I’ll try to find out.


2.5 A vicious cycle

From the transcript of my undergraduate studies, anyone would have guessed I was a mediocre student. My marks were in the average. After three years of studies, I lagged considerably behind the schedule with my study programme.
Despite all that, I never considered myself dull. On the contrary, I liked to think I was quick in grasping concepts. I often found myself catching the meaning of the lecturer’s words with ease. I enjoyed attending many lectures: understanding new concepts and ideas made me feel elated. Classes were very large, with hundreds of students. Occasionally I would sit in the rear of the room, among the less interested part of the audience, sharing their boredom and dejection. Other times instead, I would advance to the first rows, and stuck around the small group of outstanding students, those handful over hundreds, admired and even feared by the others for their unmatched brightness and and unforgiving sharpness. I liked to be among them. They were terribly enthusiastic about everything, and used to discuss all topics at length in the corridors, at pubs, anywhere. They were indefatigable workers. Boredom never touched them. They were simply exuberant. They saw opportunities everywhere. They discussed the power of ideas or how to start a company. By hanging around them, intellectual challenges presented continuously. Their exuberance was contagious, and I shared their enthusiasm.

Yet, exuberance is not all. When facing an exam sheet, more than enthusiasm and intuition, discipline is what makes the difference. The discipline to prepare myself thoroughly on the subject is what I had still to learn. On the exam day, those topics I had not studied would reveal the gaps in my preparation. Insecurity would creep in. Knowing A and B to perfection did not make up for not having considered C. Yet, even with some gaps in the preparation, one can handle and pass exams. What I needed was more trust in the system. I had to learn the power of devotion and discipline to excel in all respects.

But that didn’t happen. Instead, things started to unravel in the wrong way, and before I knew, my university performance was going downhill. As I came to know how exams where conducted, I got terribly disappointed. The procedures during examinations were extremely arbitrary, and marks had a tremendous variation according to chance. A top mark in a written exam, for example, had to be confirmed by an oral colloquium. But if the professor was busy, an ill-disposed assistant, never seen before and never to be seen again, would make his appearance and turn down top marks into fail or low marks. It happened to many of my classmates, and it happened to me too. And it happened more than once. These aleatory procedures were indeed against the official academic regulations, according to which oral examinations had to be carried out by three members of the staff. But those regulations were never put in place. Students had no tools to complain, except that of retaking the exam at a later date. The more determined and stubborn students would indeed often retake exams to compensate ill fortune. But not all had the guts and determination. The struggle against chance soon started to have an impact on me, especially on a subtle unconscious level. Rationally I knew that perseverance and constant effort would prevail, that one bad mark could be fixed by other good ones. I knew that in the end the good student prevail over chance. But the repeating of unfortunate blows, inaccuracies, petty disputes over marks, and the contemptuous attitude of professors progressively undermined my trust in the system. Although I recognised that doubled effort and determination would take me through, a listless attitude and demotivation started pervading my days. My effort would double, but my belief in the effort would halve. My enthusiasm was faltering. In addition to that, as my marks got lower, lectures, who would frequently enquire students on their average marks, would appear more and more unreachable. I often felt being treated with lack of respect, or being dismissed because of my marks.

My exuberant friends of the first years had successfully applied for scholarships abroad, and left. I started devoting myself more and more unwillingly to my studies. I struggled on my books. No matter how much I studied, my mind was unfocused. I drifted away continuously. I did not believe anymore in the educational function of the university. I didn’t believe I was leading anywhere. My effort was now aiming at gaining the degree, the piece of paper. My marks got worse, my dreams of excellence were far gone, far as those brilliant students who went away. I had entered a vicious circle.

In that period, not all was gloomy and sad. When I had no faith in the university, I cultivated a number of other interests. I started playing guitar and improved very quickly. I even made new friends among professional musicians, spent hours in recording studios. I took up the hobby of photography. I read a lot, and wrote poems which I would share with equally minded young “artists”. Without being fully aware, my desire for success and appreciation was causing a change in my interests that shifted further and further from my university courses. Whereas university would give me a feeling of inadequacy and oppression, my hobbies gave me satisfaction.

Yet, my attempts to find an escape in hobbies were risky. I was not a professional musician, nor a photographer or a poet. Those fields take years of dedication. I was simply a student who, as many other classmates back then, had been demoralised and inhibited. My university education had become a battle. Me against the power of lecturers and what I convinced myself was a hideous system. Perhaps I shared some responsibility in this, but I now know that those academics who treat students with scorn, or express careless judgements with disdain and derision, fail miserably in their educational task. Whilst their task is to stimulate the intelligence and desire of knowledge of all students, they instil insecurity and dislike for their subjects. They cause remarkable damage to the lives of their students by dismantling their self-esteem, choking their enthusiasm, and seriously compromising their chances of success. I was surely meant to be one of those unfulfilled personalities, an enthusiastic teenager turned into a despondent, languid adult. But something very lucky and unexpected happened to me. Something that saved me from a mediocre future, and drastically changed my life.